Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker - Pavan K.Varma - PDF and Shashi Tharoor's review

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V Subrahmanian

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Jul 1, 2021, 3:04:39 AMJul 1
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The book has been reviewed by Shashi Tharoor:

Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker review: A lesson from the past



Understanding the expansive, liberal roots of Hinduism, its scientific and philosophical basis, through the life of Adi Shankaracharya

Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya (788–820 CE) was born in Kaladi in Kerala and, after travelling the length and breadth of India three times in his spiritual journeys, died in Kedarnath at the young age of 32. His travels took him from the southernmost tip of the country to Kashmir in the north, Gujarat in the west and Odisha in the east, debating spiritual scholars everywhere, preaching his beliefs, establishing ‘mathas’ to take his teaching forward.

He is credited with establishing the Advaita Vedanta School of Hindu philosophy, anchored in the oldest Upanishads,as undoubtedly the most influential of the multiple schools of philosophy and theology that characterise Hinduism. In his short life, Adi Shankara is not only credited with reviving a moribund Hinduism, but also with establishing the organisational structure for its survival and regeneration, through the ‘mathas’ he established in Sringeri, Dwaraka, Puri and Joshimatha (and probably in Kanchi and elsewhere as well).

Healing a religion

By the time of Shankara’s birth, Hinduism had become paralysed by its own inflexible practice of orthodoxy, ritualism and formality, and in retreat before the rise of reform movements challenging it, notably those following the ascetic Mahavira Jaina (c. 599 BCE-527 BCE) and the other-worldly Gautama Buddha (c. 563 BCE-483 BCE), whose followers branched out into new religions distinct from the Mimamsa Brahminism practised by mainstream Hindus. Both new faiths flourished for several centuries, as Hinduism descended into esoteric disputes over Sankhya dualism and Charvaka materialism. It was then, in the late eighth century CE, that this youthful south Indian sage rose to heal and rejuvenate a divided religion. Adi Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta was the philosophically robust response to that era of confusion, integrating diverse thoughts and Hindu practices into a philosophy based on the Vedic dictum of ‘One Truth, Many Expositions’.

Author Pavan Varma has produced, in Adi Shankaracharaya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker, a comprehensively-researched and detailed account of Adi Shankara’s life and philosophy. Though written in an accessible and often anecdotal style, featuring descriptive accounts of Varma’s own travels in quest of his subject, the book inevitably focuses largely on Shankara’s philosophical writings. Shankara emphasised the importance of pramanas or methods of reasoning, tempered by anubhava or intuitive experience, which empower the seeker to gain the spiritual knowledge adumbrated by sacred texts. He focused on selected texts — the Bhagavad Gita, the Brahma Sutras and 10 of the 108 Upanishads as the key reference works of Hindu dharma, illuminating them through his bhashyas (commentaries). Reasoning was, to him, essential to clarify the truth, and Shankara was a famous debater of his time, challenging and being challenged by those of different philosophical persuasions but triumphing always through the power of his reasoning and the force of his arguments. His bhashyas are all written in prose, not verse, with lucidity and sharpness, and employ the Upanishadic question-and-answer format that the West calls ‘Socratic’.

Adi Shankara also authored the Vivekachudamani, 581 verses spelling out the qualifications required in a student of Vedanta: to be able to discriminate between the real and the unreal; to be able to maintain a spirit of detachment from this world; to have the capacity to control sensory perceptions; and to feel an intense desire to attain self-realisation and moksha. The Vivekachudamani reviews the entire range of Hindu philosophical thought and argument, from the Upanishads to the Bhagavad Gita.

His Hinduism does not see God as external to the universe. The world is in God, and the two are indivisible. He stressed on the idea that moksha (salvation or liberation, the realisation of the ultimate purpose of each individual) is achievable in the course of our present life. Adi Shankara’s adherents seek their spiritual fulfilment in the acquisition of this profound spiritual knowledge and in immersing themselves in the indissoluble union of the true Self (atman or soul) with the highest metaphysical Reality (Brahman).

Adi Shankara argued that the Upanishadic insistence on the unity of being, a divinity available to everyone, the atma residing in everyone, and the idea that all human souls ultimately merge into the same Brahman, for instance, implies the equality of all souls and argues against caste discrimination. So does the Vedantic concept of the welfare of all human beings, irrespective of social or economic distinctions: ‘bahujanasukhayabahujanahitaya cha’. Adi Shankara himself is said to have met an outcaste Chandala who was ordered by his disciples to move out of the path of the great sage. ‘Who are you to ask me to move for you?’ the outcaste asked the great rishi. ‘Is the Self within me different from the Self within you?’ Shankara was so struck by this enunciation of Advaita wisdom by the low-born Chandala that he prostrated himself before the untouchable and proclaimed the Chandala to be his guru.

Indeed, Adi Shankara declared that any human being, merely by virtue of their personhood could attain the Supreme Consciousness through a study of the scriptures, the Puranas and the epics, meditation (japa), fasting (upavasa) and worship (puja). Caste was never mentioned by Shankaracharya.

Adi Shankara was similarly unwilling to accept the misogyny that had infected some Hindu behaviour. In a theological debate with his famous critic Madanamishra, Shankara appointed as the judge between them the latter’s learned wife Sarasavani. It is said that when he had won the debate, Sarasvani challenged him to debate the Kamashastra, which of course the celibate monk could not do. Shankara then transported himself through his mystical powers into the body of a king, sported with the royal consorts, and returned to his sage’s body to win the disputation with Madanamishra and Sarasavani.

What it means

The author summarises all this very well. Varma travelled to many of the places associated with Adi Shankara and discussed his life and teachings with a variety of interlocutors before penning this portrait. If there is a significant omission, it would probably be in Varma’s failing to address Shankara’s clashes with the Buddhists, a significant feature of that era. He was also inspired by the Buddhist challenge; arguably, his ‘mathas’ were derived from the Buddhist concept of monasteries. Otherwise in his 200-page commentary on Adi Shankara, the lucid explanation of Shankara’s thought and the story of his establishment of the famous peethas and ‘mathas’ that flourish to this day, Varma has done ample justice to the Advaita school of thought and the remarkable life of Adi Shankara.

With this book, Varma adds himself to the list of those who argue for an expansive, liberal understanding of the roots of Hindu philosophy in place of the narrow-minded identitarian bigotry being propagated by the Hindutva movement of today. Varma has spoken of his refusal “to be a mute witness to the reduction of such a great religion (Hinduism) to its lowest common denominator by ignorant and illiterate people who think they are self anointed protector of Hinduism… I want to proudly say that I am a Hindu, but I want to say that for right reasons. I want those traditions to be respected — of inclusion, not exclusion; of assimilation, not hatred; of dialogue, not violence.”

Adi Shankaracharya is a valuable addition to the contemporary literature on Hinduism, a tribute to its scientific and philosophic basis, and an affirmation that it is much more than today’s political ideologues depict.

Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker; Pavan K. Varma, Tranquebar, ₹699.


putran M

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Jul 1, 2021, 12:34:37 PMJul 1
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Namaskaram,

He says nice things on Hinduism but always tags it with his snide remarks on Hindutva. That requires some response. From something I wrote elsewhere: ~


With this book, Varma adds himself to the list of those who argue for an expansive, liberal understanding of the roots of Hindu philosophy in place of the narrow-minded identitarian bigotry being propagated by the Hindutva movement of today. Varma has spoken of his refusal “to be a mute witness to the reduction of such a great religion (Hinduism) to its lowest common denominator by ignorant and illiterate people who think they are self anointed protector of Hinduism… I want to proudly say that I am a Hindu, but I want to say that for right reasons. I want those traditions to be respected — of inclusion, not exclusion; of assimilation, not hatred; of dialogue, not violence.”


[people ... think that they have to separate Hinduism from Hindutva and defend the former as if from the latter, and not acknowledge that HIndutva itself is about defending the former from the reality of abrahamic and marxist forces. So instead of daring to ask for accountability from these anti-Hindu forces, they make it their grand job as peace-makers and holding Hindus accountable for Hindutva.

... The issue is not Hinduism in itself. It is about the abrahamic and marxist forces and their anti-Hindu machinations. If you see them as a real existential threat, you show resistance and call out these threats as loudly as possible. That is not bigotry; call it ignorance if you think they are superfluous but for those for whom the fear and the experience is real and their logic tells them of underlying hazardous connections that you do not, they show resistance for the sake of survival. The Hindus who vilify Hindutva as bigoted are ignorant or deliberate distortionists who compromise the survival of Hinduism by not loudly and unrelentingly holding anti-Hindu forces accountable. The label "Hindutva" sticks everywhere where Hindu resistance appears, but .. it seems all isolated or justified where non-Hindu ...]

One wonders if Shashi Tharoor would have given this glowing review if Shankara had fried Muslims and Christians as purvapakshins instead of Buddhists, nihilists, Jains, etc. Can we do that today at an intellectual level in public, without getting labelled as Hindutva or sent to jail?

thollmelukaalkizhu


V Subrahmanian

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Jul 1, 2021, 1:20:33 PMJul 1
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Dear Putran ji,

I fully agree with your observation.  

regards
subbu 

Raghav Kumar

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Jul 2, 2021, 12:38:02 AMJul 2
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Namaste Putran ji
That was very well adumbrated by you. Those cretins who misrepresent Hindutva through their farrago of manipulations are dodgy in their articulation.

As you said - "The label "Hindutva" sticks everywhere where Hindu resistance appears..." +1 that.

Islamophobia is to be avoided even if some of its followers show bigotry. Similarly, Hindutvaphobia is also to be avoided for that very same reason. 

The left-illiberals don't get it yet. 

But for Hindu resistance over the centuries defending Dharma with a capital D, there would have been no Advaita tradition today. 

Om
Raghav







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sunil bhattacharjya

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Jul 2, 2021, 11:17:04 AMJul 2
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Dear Raghav Kumarji,

It is a pity that some of the the Hindus don't love historical facts on Hinduism. I would like to call them anti-Hindu, People like Pavan K, Varma is also helping in the continuation of the historical lies about Hinduism.. He does not know when Adi Shankara was born. It is a pity that even the Tunga Shringeri Math does not know the historical fact as to when Adi Shankara was born. The worst thing is that they don't even care to listen to people who wants to tell them the truth. It appears that I am one of the few hindus who really care for the historical facts on Hinduism. Lord Krishna told Arjuna in the Mahabharata that our highest dharma is to care for the truth, and he never told us to condemn the historical truths.

Good wishes,
skb

Ekam One

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Jul 3, 2021, 10:40:47 AMJul 3
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i would beg to differ from the points of view above. I am of the opinion that unchallenged / unquestioned Hindutva can harm hinduism more than any other group.

As a test, i always check, what is advaitic in any hindutva narrative / movement.

PraNaams
Ekoham.

putran M

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Jul 3, 2021, 5:45:31 PMJul 3
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Namaskaram Ekam-ji,

Ok. I will write one last post on this. You can give a response if you wish and we can leave the topic since it is not sustainable in this forum.

If you understand what you have written, then you understand the harm that the formalized “no one can question” dimensions of Islam and Christianity wreak on Hinduism and the need to question/challenge them and the intolerance and sanctioned violence towards "the other" that naturally follow from them. They have managed to tell/warn you your boundaries and you have accepted. If you truly do not wish to see them as the other**, then you would seek to be just as at ease in “liberal” (Hindu) society to openly question/challenge Muhammad and Quran, of jihadis and evangelicals, as of Shankara and Ramayana, of casteist Brahmins and whatever you imagine are Hindutvadis. Their character, actions, interpretations, and what not that you consider as motivating or leading to fundamental harm of “Hinduism”, all available for public tarka and academic scrutiny. If Hindu society has instead acquiesced to the bully’s norms, your public freedom to question and challenge his bully ideas and actions because he holds himself the “other” and he demands what you can and cannot question about him (or else!), but then you express consternation for the sake of "real Hinduism" that a counter resistance emerges from within “your group” that will not accept this unidirectional nonsense that you have accepted and dares to question and challenge the bully for his actions and ideas that lead to violence against his "other", or at the least rejects all self-compromising double standards undermining Hinduism, then you have unwittingly joined his insider team and are forwarding his long-term agenda.

Hindutva may be neither ideal nor perfect; but we cannot skim over the causal factors that have necessitated its presence. There is the "Well, Brahmin first do your sandhyavandanam before wondering why your religion is struggling." But I am firm that the anti-Hindu stances embedded in abrahamic religions and marxist movements are also real, so the response to them has a basis for existence. I am also not advocating that Hindutva be unchallenged or unquestioned and certainly not that all Hindus should learn Hinduism from the RSS. That is putting cart before the horse. But if you deem it as having the characteristics of a tumour, know that there are other much more explicit tumours that have become so entrenched that you take them for granted and think you can look over them but not the follow-on Hindu resistance. Such a status-quo cannot be.

** - see https://www.rss.org//Encyc/2017/6/3/basic-faq-on-rss-eng.html. (the questions on RSS being Hindu and whether it accepts Muslims etc.)

thollmelukaalkizhu


Ekam One

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Jul 3, 2021, 6:21:11 PMJul 3
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Sir,

I am fully with you on many parts of the argument you wrote here. however, i  would mention couple of perspectives, which drive my thinking.

If i am  attacked by a  group of thieves, i fight with them but, I do not bring myself down to their standards to fight with them. Two things are important here. I fight. I fight with assertiveness. At the same time, I do not give up my own values and start behaving like them. 

If the Pandit turns into a bandit, there are only bandits left. But if the Pandit stays a Pandit, tone day the bandit will turn to a Pandit.

BTW,  this fight and this feeling of "them and us", is at the vyavaharika level . In reality,  both the thief and I are Brahman. I try my best to remember this every moment of the fight, and also teach everyone around me the same.  Yes, I may sound like a weakling, but that's what people who sang Raghupati Raghava Rajaram, Ishwar Alla Tero naam  were thought to be, initially.


PraNaams
Ekam

putran M

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Jul 3, 2021, 6:42:42 PMJul 3
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Namaskaram Ekam-ji,

Ok. I am not going to oppose your general thought here. I don’t know the specific context to comment further. I do agree with your perspective on how an advaitin will see all this. A lot of his agitation is more hiss than bite, and the hissing is based on discernment of and abidance in dharma.

thollmelukaalkizhu

sunil bhattacharjya

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Jul 3, 2021, 7:48:03 PMJul 3
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I will say what is upanishadic or vedantic in narrative may be another good way of enquiring.
My 2 cents
skb

Sent from my iPhone

Vinodh

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Jul 3, 2021, 10:28:07 PMJul 3
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Namaskaram

Kanchi Mahaperiyava has said this about the speciality of Hinduism and what we each one of us can do to preserve it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3JEBW_hG5Q

Here is a brief summary of the talk (in Tamil): 

Contrary to what some may wrongly assume, our religion is not preserved through money, organization, restrictions, fear, fights, or propaganda (pracharam). Money, organization, fear, etc. are used by other religions because that is the basis for their growth and sustenance. 

Our religion is however not based on all that. It is based on achievement of completeness and peace. It is only preserved by each of us making a constant attempt every day to attain that completeness (poornatvam) by always meditating on Ambal/Ishwara/Vishnu (through Gayatri/Panchaksharam/Ashtaksharam also known as ratna-trayam) to help us with addressing the gaps in us and enable us to avoid anger and bad thoughts, to develop good thoughts, and to attain peace. 

He goes on to say that even pracharam / upanyasam is not needed even if one person in many millions achieves this completeness, that in itself is good for the welfare of this entire world. When people see such a person, they see he is not biased and is established in peace. Just like a flower attracts a bee by just being itself and not by actively calling for a bee to come, a realized person attracts other people to come on to the path of sanatana dharma by being himself.

Therefore, what is required to preserve the sanatana dharma is only the effort from each individual to attain the completeness within themselves, which leads to peace, by doing nithyAnushtana (following one's duty according to the scriptures) and upasana (meditating on saguna Brahmam). When one is doing this, there is Ishwara anugraha, and when there is Ishwara anugraha, peace and welfare is automatically attained. 

Om tat sat
🙏

Raghav Kumar

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Jul 4, 2021, 6:24:43 AMJul 4
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Namaste
Thank you for sharing that excerpt from Kanchi Paramacharya.

He did not mince words in saying, "Money, organization, fear, etc. are used by other religions because that is the basis for their growth and sustenance. " (To reiterate, the very basis for the growth and sustenance of Islam and Christianity, *according to the respected Acharya*, are money, organization and worst of all fear.)

And he also emphasized the importance of "doing nithyAnushtana (following one's duty according to the scriptures)" - presumably just as Arjuna had to be persuaded and enlightened by the Lord to do his nityakarma anuShThAna of using arms and force to destroy adharma even when it came in the garb of conflicted but not necessarily gross individuals supporting adharma like Drona and Bhishma.

For those who are sattvapradhAna, they have to stick to their Japam, sandhyA, vedAnta study etc. alone; but they have get out of the way and allow the Arjunas to do their job instead of confusing them by pacifist advice contrary to their nityAnuShThAna varnAshrama duties which may well involve use of force as well.



Om
Raghav

 


On Sun, 4 Jul 2021 at 7:58 am, Vinodh
Namaskaram

Kanchi Mahaperiyava has said this about the speciality of Hinduism and what we each one of us can do to preserve it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3JEBW_hG5Q

Here is a brief summary of the talk (in Tamil): 

Contrary to what some may wrongly assume, our religion is not preserved through money, organization, restrictions, fear, fights, or propaganda (pracharam). Money, organization, fear, etc. are used by other religions because that is the basis for their growth and sustenance. 

Our religion is however not based on all that. It is based on achievement of completeness and peace. It is only preserved by each of us making a constant attempt every day to attain that completeness (poornatvam) by always meditating on Ambal/Ishwara/Vishnu (through Gayatri/Panchaksharam/Ashtaksharam also known as ratna-trayam) to help us with addressing the gaps in us and enable us to avoid anger and bad thoughts, to develop good thoughts, and to attain peace. 

He goes on to say that even pracharam / upanyasam is not needed even if one person in many millions achieves this completeness, that in itself is good for the welfare of this entire world. When people see such a person, they see he is not biased and is established in peace. Just like a flower attracts a bee by just being itself and not by actively calling for a bee to come, a realized person attracts other people to come on to the path of sanatana dharma by being himself.

Therefore, what is required to preserve the sanatana dharma is only the effort from each individual to attain the completeness within themselves, which leads to peace, by  doing nithyAnushtana (following one's duty according to the scriptures) upasana (meditating on saguna Brahmam). When one is doing this, there is Ishwara anugraha, and when there is Ishwara anugraha, peace and welfare is automatically attained. 

Om tat sat
🙏

Vinodh

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Jul 4, 2021, 6:47:57 AMJul 4
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On Sun 4. Jul 2021 at 15:54, 'Raghav Kumar' via advaitin <adva...@googlegroups.com> wrote:
Namaste
Thank you for sharing that excerpt from Kanchi Paramacharya.

He did not mince words in saying, "Money, organization, fear, etc. are used by other religions because that is the basis for their growth and sustenance. " (To reiterate, the very basis for the growth and sustenance of Islam and Christianity, *according to the respected Acharya*, are money, organization and worst of all fear.)

And he also emphasized the importance of "doing nithyAnushtana (following one's duty according to the scriptures)" - presumably just as Arjuna had to be persuaded and enlightened by the Lord to do his nityakarma anuShThAna of using arms and force to destroy adharma even when it came in the garb of conflicted but not necessarily gross individuals supporting adharma like Drona and Bhishma.

For those who are sattvapradhAna, they have to stick to their Japam, sandhyA, vedAnta study etc. alone; but they have get out of the way and allow the Arjunas to do their job instead of confusing them by pacifist advice contrary to their nityAnuShThAna varnAshrama duties which may well involve use of force as well.

Performance of varnashrama duties according to one’s varna (e.g., to protect the people by going to war for a king) is clearly necessary. And not all varnas have the same set of duties. It is however to be noted that sandhyavandanam, japam, and studying of the vedas is part of nityanushtana of three of the four varnas. In addition to the following of svadharma, the study of smriti, itihasa and purana is enjoined on all varnas. 

Ultimately the goal for people belonging all varnas is to liberate themselves through the knowledge of the Truth. This is done by starting with the performance of one’s duties with Ishwara-arpana (bhakti) bhaava to attain purity of mind and eventually entering the nivritti marga by giving up the very duties that they were performing earlier to attain the Truth. Purification of mind is reflected in one through the maturity of the four-fold qualities of viveka, vairagya, shama-dama-etc., and mumukshutvam. Therefore, necessarily, everyone regardless of their varna will eventually have to develop these qualities, which will inevitably pacify them and make them give up their duties to enter into nivritti (sannyasa). 

There is no confusion here. One is simply enjoined to perform one’s duties according to their varna with bhakti but always with the ultimate goal of moksha in mind. When and how this will result in pacification will depend on prarabdha, but it is inevitable for attaining the ultimate goal. 

Om tat sat
🙏


Ekam One

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Jul 4, 2021, 7:29:24 AMJul 4
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RaghavJi,

Good arguments. Only problem is that the same arguments can be applied to "Hindutva" as well. And those who think they are the Arjuna's might as well be the  Drona's and Bhishma's who play their part in letting the great Sanatana dharma descend into a religion not very different from  the other so called "money, organization and fear" driven religions.

it's all in the perspective.

PraNaams
Ekam
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